Never say, ‘I can’t sell’ once you start a business

In a country woven together by SMEs, folding a business stating, “I can’t sell” can kill the economic fabric. The more, given solutions exist.

“I started a business but it failed because I don’t know sales.” (Or, “I can’t go into business because I can’t sell”).

I have received this lamentation in different variations, usually via email. But, I choose to write about it because, “I don’t know sales” is a common phrase by many who shun the profession. It, however, becomes disturbing when you have to shut down a business because of it. Did you know that the very fabric of our economy is held together by SMEs? Well, it is. Hear the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. “The SME sector employs 7.5million people and accounts for 80% of the employment market while contributing 92% of the new jobs created annually in Kenya.”  These are phenomenal statistics.

I can’t sell can kill the economic fabric

If these start-ups were to throw in the towel because “they can’t sell” one begins to see why this would be, not only disturbing, but possibly catastrophic. More so, given that even established business behemoths started in the same small manner. Equity Bank and Safaricom were not much of a feature in the business landscape slightly over two decades ago. Yet today, they are business movers and shakers which they would never have been if the founders started with the complaint, “I cannot sell.” Let’s look at the phrase “I cannot sell” and how different successful business people handled it.

Why do you think you cannot sell?

For the businessman, a modicum understanding of the steps, from basic sales training, will enable you know where to look when sales aren’t coming in. Is it prospecting or closing for instance? And then, perhaps focus on these steps when seeking sales training. But to do this means a shift in mindset not necessarily to selling but to understanding what it’s about. 

Admittedly, not all businessmen in start-ups can sell. Some, like Robert Kiyosaki, admitting they cannot sell, did something about it. By his own admission, he went into employment before venturing into business with a singular objective-to learn how to sell. He did this because he realized how critical that would be to success in business. (Robert Kiyosaki is author of best sellers Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Cash Flow Quadrant; he is also an expert in matters financial and business)

Paul Kinuthia

Locally, Paul Kinuthia of Interconsumer chose to take it on, himself.

The Business Daily captured his story thus: “ Mr Kinuthia’s journey to the world of entrepreneurship began in 1995 in pursuit of what he thought would be a modest source of personal income. The businessman says the company that he sold last week started with a capital of Sh3,000. He used to buy chemicals to make one of Kenya’s home-grown shampoos. The backstreet operation was initially located in Nairobi’s downtown Kirinyaga Road before it moved to the city’s Kariobangi and Gikomba areas. Initially running a one-man operation in which he was the only worker on the ‘factory’ floor and the chief salesman, Mr Kinuthia would package his goods and walk from one beauty salon to another introducing his products to prospective customers.”

Mr Kinuthia started selling his products to salons in downtown Nairobi for a few shillings and almost two decades later was still selling, only this time, it was a significant stake of his company for a billion bob.

I can't sell

Bill Gates didn’t say, ‘I can’t sell’

In the early days of Windows, the famous Bill Gates signed on Steve Ballmer (immediate former CEO, Microsoft) as a partner because he knew he will need a strong salesman to spread Windows globally. Bill knew what he was good in (writing software) and what he wanted (to transform the world of computing).  He also knew what he was not good in-sales.

That Ballmer was a successful salesperson is not in question; it has been said of him from the Economic Times: “Ballmer’s aggressive salesmanship during the boom days of the personal-computer industry exemplified how Microsoft became the world’s most valuable company. He also built one of the world’s most profitable and efficient sales and channel organizations.”

Steve Jobs didn’t understand I can’t sell

On the other hand, Gates’ counterpart, in Apple, the late Steve Jobs, had zero problems presenting his products to the world. The Economist described him as a showman and sales for Apple’s products repeatedly shot through the roof with every presentation he made. “Whether or not you are an Apple fan, there’s no denying Steve Jobs’ prowess as the industry’s greatest showman. The almost religious atmosphere he could create as he unveiled his latest “magical” product simultaneously thrilled the faithful and irritated non-believers.”

What to do if you can’t sell

And therein lays the solution for the start-up who “cannot sell”. Learn how to do it or partner with another who shares your vision and can sell it to the world.

All these businessmen had products which they believed the world needed and each had his own style of unleashing them to the world. In retrospect, all three approaches were right. But none approached the challenge with the phrase, “I cannot sell”.

The lesson: Shift the approach from what you cannot do, to what can you do about it.

Underlying problem of I can’t sell

But there is something else that cannot escape mention. And, in my view, is a significant contributor to the reason why there are businessmen who sadly throw in the towel lamenting, “I cannot sell.” 

It is the plague of many a start-up. Not believing that staffing their weakness (partnering with another who can sell) will only serve to bake a bigger cake. Not expunge the existing small one. It is the plague of not realizing that partnering with one who knows how to sell will free them to do what they do best. Be it audit or write software or leading.

The sad truth is that many of those starting out believe the opposite. “It’s my idea, and my business. And I will not share with anyone.” ‘Anyone’ in this case is seen as a joy-rider. This view is myopic, selfish and retrogressive. It also ends up one way: “I don’t know how to sell so I folded the business.” It also invites the question: would you rather get 100% of 1,000,000shs or 10% of a shs 100,000,000?

There is wisdom in the proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone and if you want to go far, go with others. Synergies bake a bigger cake for all who baked it to partake of. However, to see this, businessmen must see themselves serving a greater purpose than just enriching themselves with their business. A purpose which entrepreneurs easily see. They go into business to serve a need; to benefit others. Money is a result of this-not it’s cause.

Take away

The economy is in need of your idea. The market needs your idea. Your idea serves a purpose. Don’t be selfish. Instead of winding a business saying “I cannot sell” identify which step or steps need to be worked on, or expand your vision and partner with another who is proficient in the sales process.

Clinging on to “I cannot sell” only serves to compound an already challenging situation. Don’t!


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